1. Understand our mission and how we’re different

Why should you develop an online course? Here at Saylor Academy, we do it because we’re committed to open education — we believe that education should be freely available to everyone, and that we can use technology to break down the barriers that prevent people from obtaining a high-quality education. Because of this, our courses are completely free for learners, and anyone (like you!) who’s interested in contributing can get involved and add great educational content. We welcome contributions from everyone, and our team of credentialed professors, teachers, and industry professionals vet Open Educational Resources (OER) from across the web to incorporate into our courses.

If you’re thinking about developing a course, where do you even begin? Like our courses themselves, we seek to make our course design process open and accessible — we’ve been working hard at this for years, and we’d love to give you a little bit of help and guidance on how to get started. This article distills the guidelines we’ve developed for ourselves into 10 simple steps.

2. Know how to find openly-licensed materials

So, where do you begin? Before getting started, it’s important to understand what kinds of content you’ll be able to include in your course. At Saylor Academy we use materials that can be freely distributed, shared, and usually changed or remixed to suit the needs of learners — the OER that we mentioned earlier. Though there are tons of great learning materials out there, the majority of it falls under restrictive copyright licenses that severely limit how anyone but the creator can use it. Because we always want our content to be free and available for everyone, we don’t use copyrighted material — instead, we source content that adopts a certain type of open license that lets it have all the cool distribution, sharing, and changing options that we love so much. Usually, these resources are under one kind of Creative Commons License (you may recognize the “CC-BY” license that is found on all of our own, Saylor-developed content ). You can learn more about Creative Commons licenses at their homepage. Generally, open content will clearly be labeled as such, with a prominent Creative Commons logo (or that of another open license) displayed that stands out to anyone who sees the materials. Unfortunately, if it’s not labeled as open, then by default it’s under copyright — and we can’t use it. To learn more about open licenses, read our guide on what each open license allows for. If you want to find open content, take a look in any one of these repositories that host openly-licensed materials, and check out our video highlighting the key features of some of these repositories.

3. Develop a blueprint

Now that you know some of the best kinds of content you’ll be able to source for your course, it’s time to get into the nitty-gritty of course design. At Saylor Academy, we begin all of our development projects with a blueprint, which is at its heart a simple outline of the course structure, including the units and subunits, and outlines the way in which they all fit together. A great way to begin this (and one we use all the time) is to seek out and examine real-world syllabi (from universities, community colleges, trade schools, and so on) from courses similar to the one you’ll be developing and see how others have structured the topic. As you do this, it’s useful to consider the types of OER you were able to find in the last step; if anything stands out as particularly high-quality or useful, it may be worthwhile to structure your blueprint so that it mirrors the structure of the content you’ve found. You can see an example of what a finished course blueprint might look like here.

4. Nail down learning outcomes

Now that you have a blueprint in place, you can dive into the course pedagogy. As you’re building a course, let yourself be guided by learning outcomes — brief descriptions of exactly what a learner should should be expected to understand and be able to do when they’ve finished a particular course (or portion of a course). Learning outcomes should address knowledge and skills that a learner should have when they’ve finished the course. To be useful, outcomes also have to be testable — they should be worded in a way that, after an assessment, a learner can prove that they’ve come away with new knowledge or skills. The best way to do this is with action verbs — define, identify, compare and contrast, compute, explain, solve, describe the difference between, and so on. Saylor courses use learning outcomes on both a macro- and micro-level: we have overall course-level learning outcomes that cover the breadth of content in a course, and unit-level outcomes that describe these outcomes on a more granular level. For more detail on how to craft solid learning outcomes, study Bloom’s Taxonomy — if you want to get even more detailed, read this great introduction to writing great objectives. With that in mind, always think in advance about how you’ll be testing your learning outcomes throughout the course — in our case, that means the final exam and the end-of-unit assessments we include along the way. These assessments are important for learners, too, since they want to know how well they’re doing as they move through the course, and what they should focus on during their study time. Assessments are a great way to give learners feedback, and when done well can lead to a great sense of accomplishment!

5. Find, vet, and pair good learning materials

After you’ve fleshed out the structure and goals of your course, it’s time for the heavy lifting — finding learning materials, vetting them for quality and appropriateness, and aligning them to the structure of your course. When you’re going through this process, think about acting like a filter — though lots of resources may address the same topic, you want to pick the one that will best enable learners to meet the course’s stated learning outcomes. Always remember the “big three” when doing your search: your resources should be accurate, approachable, and easily accessible. This sounds easy and straightforward enough, but there’s a lot to look out for — you want your learning materials to fit well with the tone and style of your course, not to be too technical or too simple, and to be engaging and useful for the learner. For Saylor courses, there are a few more guidelines we hold learning materials to: they must be free, they must not require a sign-in or account, any quizzes must have answer keys, no materials should be ideologically biased (at least, not without proper framing; see below), they should not be illegally uploaded, and they should not be from content farms or lack proper attribution. These stipulations may or may not apply to your use case, though we believe these guidelines represent a part of the philosophy of open course design.

When adding learning materials to a course, Saylor Academy keeps track of several pieces of “metadata”, which describe the material and frame it in the context of the larger course. When put together, these “metadata” keep each course uniform, and matching the style of the rest of Saylor Academy’s courses. Each resource should have the following “metadata”:

  • an author or creator’s name;

  • a title;

  • the source of the resource (usually a URL);

  • some instructions that both frame the resource (see below) and tell the learner how to use or approach it;

  • a time advisory, which is a rough estimate of how long a learner should spend on the resource;

  • an appropriate open license.

6. Fill in the gaps

Even though you’ve found and inserted lots of OER into your course, it’s likely there will be a few “missing pieces” — parts of your blueprint that weren’t covered by the content you could find, or perhaps content that only partially fit your needs that you weren’t 100% comfortable with keeping in the course. This is where you get the opportunity to really make your mark! You can create original content to fill in these gaps, drafting new resources that cover the learning outcomes you’re targeting and licensing them openly so others can see, share, and remix in the future. Generally, we like our original articles, videos, or exercises to be short and pithy, but you should design these in whatever way will be best for your course!

The second part of “filling in the gaps” is creating framing text around the resources in your course — likely, your OER comes from all kinds of different sources, so it’s your job to make sure they all fit together in a way that creates a coherent narrative and provides the learner with a consistent thread they can follow throughout the course. With any resource, unit, or subunit, you may choose to pose study questions, draw learners’ attention to a particularly important theme, relate the resource to an earlier resource or to an important principle, or provide a definition or word of warning. We like to think of this as a “curation” process, and a way to guide learners through the course in a measured and appropriate way. How you do this is up to you — make the course your own!

7. Edit, edit, edit

This part is the simplest to explain, but perhaps the hardest to perfect. Many courses take tons of resources — ours can take up to a semester worth of time to complete, after all — so there’s a lot of text to review and edit. We use the Chicago Manual of Style to guide our writing and keep things consistent, but as long as your style is clear to you and your learners, you’ll be set!

8. Make it testable

To have a complete course, you have to give learners a way to assess their progress. In Saylor courses, that means having a final exam and end-of-unit assessments. The final exam is the culmination of the course, and will test the student’s ability to answer questions related to each and every Learning Outcome in the course. That’s why it’s so important that those LOs be testable — the course’s final exam has to check each one, and we have to be sure that the student can demonstrate mastery of each LO. With that in mind, it’s important to be able to develop good final exam questions that check a broad range of cognitive skills (remember Bloom’s Taxonomy, from earlier?). There’s a lot of research out there that talks about how to do this well; check out this video for an introduction to crafting great multiple-choice questions, and refer back to this guide to pairing appropriate assessment items with your learning outcomes.

Our final exams themselves are generally 50 multiple choice questions, pulled from a much larger pool. We break that pool down by learning outcome to ensure that all the course’s LOs are adequately covered. We then put the questions into Moodle, our assessment engine, which pulls random questions from each unit to generate the proper final exam. You may wish to test your students in other ways — please feel free to reach out to us and share your own strategies and successes!

Finally, we also like to have short, targeted end-of-unit assessments that learners can use to check their understanding along the way. These are ungraded, but give students at least one chance in each unit to make sure they’re getting everything they should out of the course. We like to have at least a few questions for each of the unit’s learning outcomes, but there’s nothing wrong with going even further, perhaps by adding micro-assessments every few subunits that check learners’ knowledge of what they just studied. Don’t hesitate to add these kinds of “checkpoints” throughout your course!

9. Beef it up

After you’ve done all this, chances are that you have a solid, usable course. A learner could go through it and really be able to say that they’ve mastered the subject. So, what now? Well, there’s always room to make things better! Our courses are never really “finished” — with so many new resources, learning modules, applications, and more being created all the time, we can always improve! As time goes on, keep an eye out for other resources that you think would be great to have in your course, even if you don’t feel they’re essential right now. Perhaps there’s a great book, article, or app that’s not free, but would be a great supplement to your course? You can include these as extra resources — keeping in mind that your learners should never be tested on them, and other materials shouldn’t rely on their presence. Supplemental resources are your chance to show learners things that they might be interested in exploring further or using in their own studies, but aren’t essential for completing the course.

10. Let subject matter experts review it

Finally, you’re finished! Now comes the hardest part — letting the world see (and criticize) your work. It may be tough, but peer review is the best way to make your course amazing, and to iron out any of the kinks that may slow your learners down. After you’re done, show your course to someone who really knows the material inside and out, and invite them to look it over and let you know what you’ve done well and what could be improved. Have a frank discussion about what resources are useful and what aren’t, what exam questions are well-developed and which ones need work, and any other related quality assurance issues. A fresh set of eyes always helps, especially with such a huge task as designing a full course!

After you’ve done all that, be sure to sit back and admire your work — you’ve done a great thing, and furthered the cause of worldwide free education. You should be proud!